Navigating the confusing twists and turns of the Part L consultations

There is something rather important missing from the consultation documents issued yesterday by the communities department, regarding proposed changes to Part L of the building regulations, covering the conservation of fuel and power.

It concerns the issue of consequential improvements for existing buildings. Whenever a building is extended or has other major works done to it, the argument is that other reasonable, cost-effective energy improvements should be made.

The consultation paper includes quite a number of strategic questions, seeking positive or negative reactions to the principles raised. There was no need for any specific question to be asked on the consequential improvements issue. Back in 2004, just such a question was included in an earlier consultation on Part L – and received endorsement from 80% of respondees.

What is far more surprising is the absence of any reference in the accompanying technical documents as to how such requirements might satisfactorily be met, apart for buildings over 1,000m² in size.

That 1,000m2 figure reflects the requirements of article six of the Energy Performance of Buildings directive. Adopted in 2002, this directive made “consequential improvements” in these larger buildings mandatory right across Europe from 2005. And that is an obligation that has been included in our building codes ever since.

But as long ago as last November, the European Commission published a new text, effectively a “recast” of the existing directive. And in that text, the barrier figure of 1,000m2 for “consequential improvements” disappears. Effectively – with just a few exceptions for historic or very temporary buildings – the requirement is extended to all existing buildings, of any size. Including all homes. To be introduced in 2011.

Subsequently the European Parliament has given its view upon the proposal. It was unequivocally supportive, with a plenary vote last April of 549 to 51 in favour. This included endorsement by every Labour, every Conservative, every Liberal Democrat and both Green British MEPs. (The UKIP members who bothered to turn up did oppose it, but they tend to oppose everything).

The support of parliament matters, as it have co-decision powers with 27 national governments. The new Swedish presidency has announced its intention to get the directive all signed and sealed by December – just in time for the big international climate change conference in Copenhagen, to set the post-Kyoto regime.

Seven months after the new draft directive was issued, the UK government has yet to say a word publicly about whether they think it is good, bad or indifferent. But, bearing in mind that the text clearly requires “consequential improvements” for all buildings, it is decidedly strange that this consultation gives no clue how in detail our government would wish to see it implemented. The accompanying technical documents are entirely silent.

The declared timetable for these Part L improvements to start is October 2010. Just a few months later, the UK may well be required under European law to introduce “consequential improvements” for all buildings. In a technical consultation, it does seem very perverse not be consulting now on how this might be delivered.

I understand that, when every other government department was consulted last month before this consultation went ahead, each endorsed the idea of extending such obligations to all buildings. Doubtless their ministers will have been surprised as anybody as to why the final documents contained no reference to this extension.

What has now happened leads me to believe that the communities department must have been taken over by UKIP sympathisers. There surely can be no other logical explanation.